Since the 1800s, the U.S. higher education system has offered undergraduate and graduate degrees. Undergraduate degrees prepare students for specific careers or provide a basic university education with a specialty in a particular discipline. Graduate-level degree programs enable students to develop expertise in a chosen field of study.


There are four levels of college degrees in the United States: associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate. The first two are undergraduate degrees; the last two are graduate-level degrees.

Associate's Degree

Informally known as a “two-year” degree, an associate’s program can cover basic education requirements, which can apply toward a bachelor’s degree. Other associate’s degrees prepare recipients for specific occupations.

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Bachelor's Degree

The bachelor’s is the basic four-year degree. It includes basic requirements, plus a major, and often a minor, field of study.

Master's Degree

A master’s degree program focuses on developing one's expertise in a specific area. The degree generally requires one to two years of study beyond a bachelor’s degree.

Doctoral Degree

A doctoral degree requires students to master a particular discipline and contribute to that body of knowledge through their own research. Doctoral degrees can require four to six years of study beyond a bachelor’s.

Professional Degrees

Specialized professional degrees exist at the graduate level. Examples include the Juris Doctor (J.D.), a law degree, and the Master of Business Administration, or M.B.A. The best-known professional doctoral degree is the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.).

About the Author

Shane Hall is a writer and research analyst with more than 20 years of experience. His work has appeared in "Brookings Papers on Education Policy," "Population and Development" and various Texas newspapers. Hall has a Doctor of Philosophy in political economy and is a former college instructor of economics and political science.